From Shimla to Shyamala? Jai Ram Thakur isn't Yogi Adityanath, won't be able to change name overnight

Shimla: In the ‘gentle’ state, where renaming of important buildings, institutions and schemes has, till now, dominated the political narratives is finding itself caught up in a debate around changing name of Shimla -- the erstwhile summer capital of the British Raj days and now Himachal Pradesh's capital.

File image of Himachal Pradesh chief minister Jai Ram Thakur. Twitter/@airnewsalerts

File image of Himachal Pradesh chief minister Jai Ram Thakur. Twitter/@airnewsalerts

Till now, successive governments, both BJP and Congress, have renamed some British era buildings, old institutions -- including three leading government hospitals and even changed the names of the schemes. Now, it’s about Shimla.

The right-wing Hindu organisation -- Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), backed by Sangh Parivar, has vociferously demanded the renaming Shimla as ‘Shyamala’, thus putting the state’s BJP government, in a piquant situation, both politically and ideologically, ahead of its completing one year in the power. The name change issue has, strong political as well as ideological ramifications in the small hill state but no big again for the BJP.

The VHP demand for change of name is not new but has got force following Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath's decision to rename important cities namely Allahabad, Faizabad and Mughalsarai as Prayagraj, Ayodhya and Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhaya respectively.

In April 2016, Haryana’s BJP government move to change Gurgaon’s name to Gurugram had provoked the VHP to raise demand for Shimla, which the then Congress government led by Virbhadra Singh turned down the plea for ‘want of justification and basis’.

“What the VHP is asking is not even the change of name it’s only about a correction or correct pronunciation of the name Shimla,” says Aman Puri, state VHP president.

He says Shimla's name was derived from its patron Goddess Shyamla Devi, which is the incarnation of Ma Kali, whose popular temple still exists in the town. The Britishers had some bias against word Shyamala, thus they addressed it Simla, which later changed as Shimla, and his list of names of towns and places, however, doesn't stop at Shimla. Two other towns of Dalhousie and Nurpur are also on the VHP’s wish-list for the state’s BJP government for a probable name change.

The two-lakh population town — Shimla — has not only an interesting history but several British landmarks, which have made it a place of world-wide attraction. There is no concrete evidence to suggest how and why the Britishers named it as ‘Simla’. Definitely, there must have existed some place, house, temple or village making the basis for the name.

Shimla was selected by the Britishers because of its climate similar to England and at that time it was untouched by human habitations. There were dense wooded forests around, walkways and fascinating hill slopes.

The Britishers loved the place so much they decided to make it as the summer capital of India in 1864. Thereafter, the process of building the town, its infrastructure started. The first building which came up in Shimla was the Kennedy House, which led to the establishment of a series of institutions and buildings, few of these stand witness to town’s colonial past.

But how about the sudden demand of right ideology groups to change Shimla to Shyamala?

Chetan Singh, a history scholar and former Director Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS) says, “Demand is a far cry and will amount to negation of history. Shimla is not simply a place, there is history buried deep in its soil, majestic buildings and places. There is no evidence suggesting the existence of temple named Shyamala. There are, of course, spoken stories about it, but no documentary or archaeological evidence.”

Renaming of cities in India is not a new trend which the rightist ideologists are trying to impose. During the post-1947, several towns and places witnessed changes in their names after approval from the Government of India.

The VHP has thus build up the argument saying it was asking only for correction as was done in case of Orissa to Odisha, Pondicherry to Puducherry, Bombay to Mumbai, Uttranchal to Uttrakhand, Calcutta to Kolkata and Bangalore to Bengaluru.

“Very soon, we are going to have a state level conference. Now since the issue of Ram temple is also getting focussed, together we will push for Shimla’s case,” says Puri.

The demand, however, has no takers among citizens.

Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur after his initial response to ‘examine and study ‘the issue says, "Right now there is no proposal before us for changing Shimla’s name. The government keep getting suggestions from different sections of society. Since the names of some cities were changed recently, it was natural that demand was raised afresh.”

Thakur, a first-time chief minister, who has chosen to run the affairs of the state without getting himself embroiled into controversies is not very much in favour of changing names unlike his counterparts in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat.

“I wonder how media chose to make such big headlines,” he says, adding that being a small state, where sentiments of the citizens some time strongly override the political agenda, such a decision becomes tough unlike bigger states. The government as such has no agenda on changing names unless there lies a justification or a strong basis.

The fact remains that Sangh Parivar which forms part of the BJP government’s ideological agenda will definitely keep hammering or injecting mythological justifications.

Shimla’s former mayor and CPM leader Tikender Singh Panwar argues “the name of Shyamala has never been found in any of the gazetteers printed by the British, though these contained very minute details as well. Nowhere has the name Shyamala been mentioned in the texts available with the Shimla’s civic body”.

Some old records reveals that early local communities, which inhabited the Shimla ridge, especially residing in the villages around Shimla hill were under the two princely states -- Koti and Keonthal (Junga). They too had no any deity named Shyamala. It seems both the ‘states’ had ‘Tara Devi’ as their deity. The other communities had their own devtas/deities. None of them was called ‘Shyamala’. These facts are endorsed by Chetan Singh and Panwar.

Another Shimla historian Raaja Bhasin, who is also the author of several books in Shimla’s colonial past also disputes the VHP claim. "I haven't found any document on Shyamala Devi temple in the town. Some references about Alexander Gerard, a Britisher, are definitely (there). He referred to Shimla as Shemla. Few people even called as Shimlu or Shimlah."

He believes renaming Shimla as Shyamala will neither enhance Shimla’s USP as world-famed tourists destination nor its rich glory. It will rather be a huge blow to the town’s legacy.

Former BJP chief minister Shanta Kumar in 1991-92 took a decision to change the name of Dalhousie -- another famous hill destination as Subhash Nagar. The proposal did not work though he did manage to change the name of Shimla's Rippen Hospital as Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhaya (DDU) hospital. Earlier to this Snowdown Hospital was also named as Indira Gandhi Medical College Hospital and Lady Reading hospital as Kamla Nehru Hospital.

Shanta Kumar's government also changed the name of historic Peterhoff, a majestic British era building which once housed the Raj Bhawan but was later gutted in a fire and rebuilt as Meghdoot hotel. This was changed back to Peterhoff again. This is place where trial of Nathu Ram Godse took place in Mahatama Gandhi’s assassination case.

The famous Scandal Point — a hub of tourists activity in Shimla town was changed to Lala Lajpat Rai — noted freedom fighter but even now Scandal Point is more famous for its name.

Some of Shimla’s landmarks like Viceregal Lodge, which hosts the Indian Instituted of Advanced Study, the UNSECO heritage narrow gauge railway line, Ellerslie – the government secretariat building, Barnes’ court (currently Raj Bhawan), Historic Gaiety Theatre, Annandale ground, Shimla drinking water supply built by the Britishers.

The visits of Mahatama Gandhi ,Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Abdul Ghaffar Khan and several other noted freedom fighters to Shimla for working out modalities on India's Independence, thereafter the Post-Independence Simla Agreement on 2 July, 1972 between Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi and his Pakistani counterpart Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, will remain biggest historical challenges, if the Himachal Pradesh government seeks to change Shimla's name.

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Updated Date: Nov 20, 2018 14:28:51 IST

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